Making the “Enemy” Human:
I first discovered Kristine Huskey when I read her book, Justice at Guantánamo: One Woman’s Odyssey and Her Crusade for Human Rights. It spoke to me for a number of reasons. Rather than simply offering an analysis of the human rights issues pertaining to the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo, Huskey offers a woman’s perspective on what it’s like to be there. Her story also spoke to me because she is a woman of color who found an unconventional path to a traditional career that then took a radical turn. At her book reading in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was thrilled by her wisdom and experience as a human-rights activist and lawyer, and her bravery in representing Guantánamo detainees after 9/11, at a time when taking a stand for human rights was often portrayed as unpatriotic. To me, her stand required the same kind of courage shown by Barbara Lee when she became the only congressperson to vote “No” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) in the aftermath of 9/11. After the reading, I spoke with Kristine, hoping to gain some deeper understanding of both her journey, and how her meetings with the so-called “enemy” changed her perspective on life and spirituality.
Caroline Acuña: What prompted you or moved you to write your current book?
Kristine Huskey: The book, essentially, is in two parts. The first is the story of my unconventional journey, being quite young and living in Africa, being adventurous and reckless in New York, and finally discovering what my passion is, what career I wanted for myself. The second part of the book is all about Guantánamo, and the human side of it. What motivated me to write it are those two pieces.
In the first piece, I became interested in how law students make choices about their next step. I noticed that a lot of law students were drawn to me because they knew about my unconventional past. I didn’t go straight through school, and I did some crazy things, and then I worked in a big law firm and still somehow managed to do very controversial international human rights work. I started to see a lot of law students asking me about that. “How did you do it?” I think students were motivated by my story because a lot of lawyers have a very traditional story: “I went to the greatest high school, then I went to the greatest college, then I went to the greatest law school, and then I went on to be a lawyer at a big law firm.”
I wanted to write about the many stories and lives I lived before I actually settled down into my career. There are so many things that you can do before you find your passion, and for some of us it may take a lot longer, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t eventually find it and have a career where you feel that you accomplish things that you’re proud of. You can go from being the person tending bar, or having wacky careers or jobs, and go on to be something like a lawyer. That was something that motivated me—to tell that story.
Then the Guantánamo piece, which is the second half of the book. Now, you read a lot more about Guantánamo; it’s much more present in our popular culture. We have that movie Escape from Guantánamo, and I heard it mentioned on Law and Order a year ago. It’s part of our popular culture and it’s in the newspapers, and the lawyers who work at big law firms and donate their time—they’re in the newspapers all the time. I wanted to tell the story of how it started and how I was at a big law firm and the lawyers that I worked with were some of the first lawyers to do that work and we were called unpatriotic and none of the journalists would meet with us to write about our story. I wanted to tell that story and how my law firm was courageous enough to take on that work and be the first law firm to do that.
I also wanted to write the personal side of meeting people at Guantánamo, not just suspected terrorists who have rights. I wanted to tell the story of who they are as humans, as people, and how I struggled with representing people who were considered to be terrorists but at the same time were also people, and the emotional conflict that I went through. Those were the two main things that motivated me.
CA: Do you recall a moment when they stopped becoming terrorists and started becoming people?
KH: Yes. Really it happened in the first meeting. I represented the detainees for about two and a half years before I was actually allowed to meet them because of the government control of them. I wasn’t allowed to go to Guantánamo until finally the Supreme Court ruled in our favor and allowed us to go. Then I went and I finally saw, in person, the people who I’d been helping all along. Because of the controversial aspect of representing these suspected terrorists, whenever I would talk about my work to the public—before the Supreme Court ruling—we would always say, “This is a case about the rule of law. This is a case about the separation of powers. This is a case about due process.” And I always thought of the detainees that way—as a rule of law.
Then I went to Guantánamo, and I was amazed. “Wow, these are people I really represent.” I could see them flesh and blood, sitting there in prison garb chained to the floor, and I met them for the first time and learned about their children and their brothers. Some of the first questions that they asked us were about their families. “When I left Kuwait my child was about to have an operation. Do you know anything about the operation?” “When I left, my father was very sick. Do you know how his heath is?”
It couldn’t have been more of a revelation for me, that first meeting. “Oh my gosh, they have wives and children and mothers and fathers, and they are just like us.” I’m giving myself chills just thinking about it. It’s powerful.
CA: That is powerful. I think it’s a thing that we do as humans. Maybe it’s in our DNA, or maybe it’s learned behavior, but we’re so quick to “other” ourselves from somebody else. We fall into that so easily because we’ve been doing it for so long, and then those moments happen where we see “Wow, you’re like me.”
KH: Yeah, and after I met them and I was back in the DC area and giving presentations and talking about the detainees in the press, I’d say, “You know, imagine for a second, when you think about your family and your friends, that the people in Guantánamo are the same as you. They have friends and family and they are just like us. They are not those detainees. They’re not those people.”
CA: In your life experience have you felt like the Other? Not in the sense of a terrorist but …
KH: Yes, and it’s interesting that you ask that because that’s another theme that runs through my book. My mother is Filipino and my father is Caucasian, so I was sort of a mestiza—you know, half and half. So, I would go through life, and see it come up now and again. In one scenario I’d be the white girl. In another scenario, where I’m tending bar, for example, I’d get asked how I learned to speak English. So I talk about living in two different worlds and being seen sometimes as an outsider depending on who the insiders are. I think that my DNA makeup, my genetic background, my ethnic background, and also the fact that I have traveled so much, just made me really identify with my clients. Like you said, not the terrorist part. But being that Other, being one of those people. Being treated as a foreigner. Or foreign.
CA: Was your mother born here?
KH: She was born in the Philippines. She moved here when she was 22.
CA: How did that show up, in terms of law school, because I understand that it’s a pretty trying path? I would imagine as a woman who identifies as a woman of color that there were obstacles for you. How did those show up for you?
KH: I went to law school in Texas—the University of Texas in Austin—and I went there after I had been living in New York City. I did my undergrad in New York after I had taken time off and lived in New York and bar tended for a while. Then I woke up and said, “Oh my gosh! I have to get my act together and go to school.” So, I ended up going to Columbia, which, you know, is a very good school, and I put myself through Columbia and then took another two years off again, before saying, “Ok, I have to get my act together again and go on to law school or something.” I chose law school. Coming from the New York area and living a really New York City life, living in Hell’s Kitchen, I went to Texas and they thought I was an alien, because in Texas, the law school has to be something like 80 percent Texans. It was almost like two different countries—Texas vs. New York City. And then I was further alienated by not being entirely sure what ethnicity I was, so there was a sort of double obstacle.
But I learned to turn what could have been an obstacle into an advantage. I knew I sort of stuck out, and I used that to my advantage. I didn’t blend into the crowd, so a lot of professors knew me. I found mentors—professors who would help me—and I’m still in contact with a couple of them today. I recently got an e-mail from a professor congratulating me on my book.
I was also a lot more outspoken because I was from New York. People kind of looked at me as the typical New Yorker. And like you were saying—and I don’t think it’s a myth—sometimes in law school they try to sort of humiliate you—the professors—but coming from New York I’d just think to myself, “I just put myself through Columbia bartending at three different jobs. I’ve been burglarized. I’ve been stalked.”
CA: Right, “Law school’s nothing!”
KH: (Laughs.) Yeah! “You can’t really scare me.” All of those experiences really helped me.
CA: When you were thinking about getting your act together, why was it law? And what type of law were you thinking of, originally?
KH: Talk about life coming full circle. When I was at Columbia I took this class in my junior or senior year called “Civil Liberties and Civil Rights.” We read all of these great cases: Brown v. Board about segregation and desegregation, a case about First Amendment rights. We read these big cases about civil liberties and civil rights, and what inspired me was the actors involved. It wasn’t really the substance of it—civil rights starting to interest me—it was more the fact that there are people, such as lawyers, who can make change happen. And I thought, “Wow that’s really an amazing thing to be able to do!”
That inspired me. But after I graduated from Columbia, I didn’t want to go right into law school because I think I knew that I just had too many more adventures in me. (Laughs.) So, I modeled for a year in New York, which was kind of fun, but I very quickly got tired of that, because, as you can imagine, it was very shallow. Then I backpacked around Southeast Asia for a year. Then I decided, “Now I’ve had my two-year adventure. Now I can go to law school.”
I entered law school really wanting to do women’s rights and civil rights. It’s interesting. There are all these studies that say 70 percent of law students go into law school wanting to do civil rights and women’s rights and human rights, and then they come out all beaten up into more traditional people. Most people go and work in a big law firm, and so that’s what I did. After law school, I worked at a big law firm in Washington.
My friends said, “Gosh, we couldn’t be more surprised. You were such a hard-charging girl from New York when you came to law school. You scared us all. You were wearing combat boots, and now you’re working for this big corporate law firm.”
I don’t entirely know why I did that, other than because that’s what everybody else does. It’s good money. It’s the traditional thing to do. It was fortunate though, because in my job at the law firm I represented international clients. I like traveling and I love different cultures and different people, so that is the work I was drawn to, and I think that’s what allowed me to keep my sanity in what would have been a very traditional environment—oppressive, even. I traveled all over the place, and none of my clients spoke English as their first language, and that was very exciting. Then, very soon after I arrived, we started representing the Guantánamo detainees.
I was very fortunate.
CA: Even though you worked in a conventional, straight-ahead law firm, this one actually took a turn outside its own box. That’s interesting.
Going back to the prisoners in Guantánamo: Were they able to practice their own religion within the prison? Was there any spiritual guidance in the prisons, and if so, what religion was used?
KH: Honestly, I think this is a terrible mark on our history. When I first went to Guantánamo in 2004, these first visits were spent just listening to the detainees, and they wanted to talk about their treatment. We felt like we didn’t want to ask them a lot of questions because then it might seem like they were being interrogated. So we took their lead. If they wanted to talk about it, we would encourage them to tell us what was going on and how they had been treated. They really did want to talk about how they were treated. I learned that in addition to a lot of abuse and harsh treatment and harsh conditions, when they first arrived, they weren’t given any sort of ability to practice their religion. Most of them were Muslim. I would say 99 percent of the detainees were Muslim, maybe even 100 percent—from all different countries. A lot of the countries were in the Middle East, but definitely all over. I learned that when they first got there, they were held in outdoor cages. They were punched for praying. It wasn’t until finally some smart people in the military began to think that things might go a lot better for the interrogations if they started giving them some more room to practice their religion that things changed.
But they spent at least six months there without getting anything. They’d ask for a Koran, and they weren’t allowed a Koran. It wasn’t until after a couple of years that they were allowed things like prayer beads and a prayer mat. Again and again my clients told me that their religion was used against them, that some soldiers would say, “See what happens when you’re a Muslim.”
I don’t know if you remember, but there was a whole incident—Newsweek magazine reported it, and then they rescinded their statement about it—but it had to do with the Koran getting thrown in the toilet by some of the guards.
Throwing the Koran in the toilet.
Newsweek reported it, and there was a big outrage, but I had actually learned from my clients before the Newsweek thing even came out, that some of the guards had stepped on the Koran. You probably know this, but in the Muslim religion, touching the Koran is sacred. If you’re a non-Muslim, you’re not supposed to even touch the Koran. To me, it was just a terrible mark on our history when we used religion against them.
One of the first things that we did when we started meeting detainees and learning about this was file a motion to the court. The clients asked us if they could get something called a Tafsir. It’s a sort of scholarly commentary on the Koran. I even got an affidavit from the executive director of a very accepted Muslim association in the United States saying that the Tafsir is a non-extremist, scholarly commentary. The government refused to let us give that to our clients, and the court didn’t even rule on it. The court didn’t even bother to listen to us. I talk about that in my book—it was so depressing. It was one of those darker moments in my time representing them, trying to help them just with their condition—not even necessarily get in to court and challenge their detention. Can I get them something like the Tafsir? It’s a scholarly commentary, and it helps you study the Koran.
CA: They couldn’t even have that…
KH: They couldn’t even have that, and the court just ignored it.
CA: Was Christianity or the Bible forced on them, or any other religious text?
KH: There happened to be a Muslim soldier—I think he was brought to Guantánamo to be the chaplain—and he was Muslim. He started holding services for the detainees, not joint ones, but he was allowed to lead individual detainees in prayer and talk with the detainees. His name is James Yee and he has a great book out.
CA: Is he Chinese?
KH: Yes. He’s a Chinese Muslim. American. He converted to Islam some time in his adult life. I’ve actually brought him to UT to speak to some of the students. He has a great story. He went to Guantánamo, and he was allowed to talk with the detainees. He started submitting to his higher-ups at Guantánamo some suggestions about how to allow them to practice their religion in a better way. He offered ideas for improvements in the detainees’ lives, as far as religion goes. He submitted these suggestions and proposals, and he also submitted some concerns: “I’m concerned about the way they are being treated.” “They’re not allowed to pray in the way that they should be allowed to.” After about a year of doing that, he was accused of being a terrorist himself.
CA: I remember him.
KH: Yes! He was locked up for 90 days without a lawyer. They accused him of selling classified information and being a traitor. In the end, they charged him with having pornography on his computer. They totally smeared him, and he was kicked out of the military. He went through this terrible time of basically being an accused terrorist. And they never replaced him with another Muslim chaplain.
KH: I know! Isn’t that terrible? You brought up this question, and I had forgotten all about that because there are so many wrong things about Guantánamo. That was just one of them. They never replaced him. Somebody told me that at some point in time the government brought in a chaplain who was a born-again Baptist or something, and that was the chaplain for the Guantánamo detainees. They couldn’t have found some Muslim chaplain? I’m sorry I’m getting so upset about it. Again, that’s just one small thing—but that seemed to me so… if you think about religion… and I know that you are obviously spiritual in the work you do and everything… it’s such a terrible mark. To think that even though they were alleged terrorists the military used their religion against them.
CA: When I think of oppression, I think that religion or spiritual practice is one of the first things taken away. When slaves were brought over from Africa, their spiritual and cultural heritage were taken away from them—their drum, their language, their music, their religion—and Christianity was forced upon them, and the same with the Aborigines and the Native Americans. It’s the assimilation process. I was curious about that, because I suspected the military would use this tactic as they have historically, as a psychological tactic imposed to weaken a human being.
KH: Exactly. It’s sad on many levels, but it’s also sad because from my understanding, having lived in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years… I think of it this way—and it sounds terrible—but I’m just going to be honest and frank. I think in a lot of America, we don’t take our different religions as seriously as perhaps the Muslim world takes their religion, or other cultures take their religions. For example, if you’re a Buddhist you really believe in it, you really practice it. But I think for a lot of America we’re not really a very religious society. You know we are and we aren’t—it’s kind of weird. But to use somebody else’s religion against them, just because it’s different from ours, is such an appalling idea. It just astounds me.
CA: Right. Speaking of religion, did you grow up with a spiritual background?
KH: I did. I was raised Catholic. The Philippines is a very Catholic nation, and I’d say my mother is very Catholic. She does all of the things that good Catholics are supposed to do—go to church and all that sort of stuff. I always say this to people, and I really do mean it: My mother is an angel. She is a practicing Catholic, Christian, whatever you want to call it, in the sense that she really practices and lives her life the way I think somebody who is spiritual should live her life. She’s always helping people. She volunteers at her church. I always say she’s my role model on how to be a better person. I always try to be like her. Of course, I don’t think that’s very possible because she’s an angel.
My dad was a Protestant, but he didn’t really practice, so I was raised Catholic. I went through a period of being sort of anti-Catholic and anti-religious, but in the last 10 years I’ve started coming back to my religion, which makes my mom very happy.
You know, I like how you use the word spiritual instead of religious. I think I’ve always been spiritual. I may not have always been a practicing Catholic, or I may have turned away from the Catholic Church, but I’m very lucky to have lived in Saudi Arabia and Africa and traveled a lot, to have seen other religions. I went to a boarding school for performing arts, a school for people who are musicians and dancers and actors, and those people were constantly experiencing and experimenting with different spiritualities. I think I probably met my first Buddhist when I was 14. So at an early age, I saw people who were not Protestant or Catholic, and I have continued throughout my life to meet people who were from different spiritual backgrounds. So I always thought that was part of my makeup, and those people always inspired me because it’s different for me, and I embrace the difference.
CA: I use the word spiritual because I think we come to an understanding that we’re not spiritual unless we’re religious, unless we belong to a religion. And I believe that there is spirituality in both of those things.
KH: Oh, yes.
CA: I think there is spirituality within religion and outside of religion. For example your mother sounds to me like a very spiritual, practicing Catholic, but I think there are also people within religion who speak their religious beliefs loudly and think everything they say and do is the right and only way, yet they don’t hold out a hand to their neighbors for whatever reason. They don’t participate as an angel on the planet. And then there are those people who don’t identify with a religious group but who do practice spirituality, who do practice their angel-like ways on the planet.
I think to use the word spiritual is to include what people do outside of religion that is also spiritual. That seems to be what you were speaking to, but I think the word spiritual also applies to what people do within the religion. In the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, we call that social engagement. Buddha actually had a practice in the world to help humanity move toward liberation.
But I often think spiritual philosophies also turn into religious philosophies, and then societies become more tight with them, for a variety of reasons—power, ego, what have you. But it doesn’t necessarily take the spirituality and the kindness and the compassion out of religion, and it also doesn’t dismiss those who practice spirituality but are not specifically connected to religion in an ongoing way.
KH: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think there are some people who would say they are religious, but they’re not spiritual at all. It’s exactly like what you said about practicing spirituality within and outside the religion.
When I was in high school, I had some roommates who opened my eyes about all of that. It was the first time I had met people who talked about ideas and spirituality and these philosophical and practicing ways, like you say, with social engagement and helping people and helping humanity. It was the first time I heard people talk about that outside of organized religion. Which is kind of interesting, because when I turned away from my religion, I was turning away from organized religion. I didn’t like the way of organized religion because it was exclusive, or exclusionary.
CA: Do you see your work at Guantánamo as a kind of social-justice activism?
KH: Yes. That’s another interesting thing. I love when I can go back and say that was such a revelation for me and actually recognize it as something that changed my life. I think it’s good to go back and reflect on your life and pinpoint certain events or places in your life where you changed your position and your eyes were opened up so you can be reminded of that.
When I was practicing law at this law firm—before I did the Guantánamo stuff—the work was really interesting because I could travel and meet different people, but I understood the practice of law in a particular way. I thought practicing law meant I would write briefs and go to court and meet clients, and that’s what I am as a lawyer. I do those things.
But when I started doing the Guantánamo work and meeting my clients, the idea of social activism and engaging in a cause that was bigger than a client or bigger than a person suddenly became very real for me, and all of a sudden I thought, “I’m not just a lawyer. I’m an advocate.” Which encompasses so much more. Obviously I have my individual clients, because you can’t get away from that, and you have an ethical obligation to them. But now, all of a sudden, I had a cause. I don’t know that I ever had a cause like that before. One of the things I teach my students is that when you are a human-rights lawyer, being a lawyer really means being an advocate, and there are many different ways you can use your skills and use your degree. Part of that is realizing that you are a social activist.
CA: Right. It’s beautiful.
KH: Yeah, it’s eye-opening.
CA: Does spirituality guide your activism? How do you use your Catholic practice within the activist work?
KH: I honestly look to two sources—one is my mother, as I said—and, it doesn’t matter what religion you call it, she always sees the best in people. She takes time to help people who don’t have other people helping them. She takes old ladies in her church to coffee and listens to them for hours. That’s a source of inspiration for me, to help people who can’t help themselves, or who have limited resources.
The other source of inspiration comes from the Guantánamo situation. When the plight of the Guantánamo detainees started to become more public, there were a lot of people who were opposed to the work that we did. They said, “Who cares? They’re terrorists. They should be tortured” and all this sort of stuff. But a lot of groups that came out and spoke out against torture and spoke out in favor of the Guantánamo detainees were groups that were based in religion. Some of them were Catholic, but some of them were other religious groups that were very much speaking out. I was really struck by that. It was part of my coming back to having faith in religion and seeing spirituality as something different, a kind of social activism.
It was at a time in my life when I was sort of ambivalent about religion, and seeing those groups speak out against torture, protest in front of the White House, get arrested … I was part of this torture survivors’ group, and they protested in front of the White House. You’re not allowed to stand in front of the White House for longer than like a minute, in any particular area. And these priests wearing Franciscan robes and white collars were getting arrested in the name of justice. It was so inspiring. That was another event that gave me a new strength.
Because I’ve had moments representing the detainees where I would ask myself, Am I doing the right thing? I’m representing the supposed terrorists, maybe I am unpatriotic. I would question myself. But then to see these religious figures say, “I’ll get arrested for this cause.”—it was so inspiring. It helped me to keep believing in what I believed in, the reasons I represented these detainees. It helped me see that it was important, and a good thing, and part of what we should be doing.
CA: A lot of awakening.
KH: Yeah, it was! And I have to say talking about it is also very… You know when you’re asked specific questions and when you have to talk about it, you find a kind of second revelation.
CA: It’s true. The process of talking about it opens up the energy of it, and you can realize your own wisdom. In talking about your experience, the wisdom actually changes into more wisdom while you’re talking about it.
[author][author_info]Kristine Huskey is a law professor and the former Director of the National Security Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law and began representing Guantánamo detainees in early 2002, as one of the few lawyers willing to challenge the government soon after 9/11. She has practiced international litigation and arbitration at Shearman & Sterling and taught international human rights and humanitarian law in the U.S. and abroad. Kristine grew up in Alaska and has lived all over the world, including Angola, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and the U.K., and was a professional model and dancer before she found her passion in human rights law. In addition to advocating for human rights, Kristine loves to cook, sample global wines, do triathlons in the summer, and ski in the winter.[/author_info] [/author]
[author] [author_info]Caroline Acuña is an “organic intellectual”, musician, sound practitioner, curandera, dancer, and ritualist. She has 20 years of experience in fundraising, facilitation and mentoring in organizations engaged in social justice transformation. Fundamental to all of her endeavors is her spiritual practice that is rooted in her council of ancestors (Maré). Based on earth practice, her spirituality is a combination of Indigenous Native and African, Maré and Buddhism.[/author_info] [/author]
For More Information About Guantánamo Bay:
Center for Constitutional Rights
Human Rights Watch
For coverage of Guantánamo detainees and other detainees held in the “War on Terror”
by Candace Gorman, attorney to detainees